11 ways to be an inquiry-based teacher

Jacqui Murray

IMS Expert on websites/online content, tech advice and computer support.

Jacqui is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and author of two technology training books for middle school. She wrote Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a Cisco blogger, a columnist for Examiner.com, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller for her agent that should be out this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office, WordDreams, or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

If you’re interested in technology textbooks for K-5, visit Structured Learning. You’ll find the tech curriculum Jacqui Murray and hundreds of schools across the nation use.

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It's hard to run an inquiry-based classroom. Don't go into this teaching style thinking all you do is ask questions and observe answers. You have to listen with all of your senses, pause and respond to what you heard (not what you wanted to hear), keep your eye on the big ideas as you facilitate learning, value everyone's contribution, be aware of the energy of the class and step in when needed, step aside when required. You aren't a teacher, rather a guide. You and the class find your way from question to knowledge together. Because everyone learns differently.

You don't use a textbook. Sure, it's a map, showing you how to get from here to there, but that's the problem. It dictates how to get 'there'. For an inquiry-based classroom, you may know where you're going, but not quite how you'll get there and that's a good thing. You are no longer your mother's teacher who stood in front of rows of students and pointed to the blackboard. You operate well outside your teaching comfort zone as you try out the flipped classroom and the gamification of education and are thrilled with the results.

And then there's the issue of assessment. What your students have accomplished can't neatly be summed up by a multiple choice test. When you review what you thought would assess learning (back when you designed the unit), now measure the organic conversations the class had about deep subjects, the risk-taking they engaged in to arrive at answers, the authentic knowledge transfer that popped up independently of your class time. You realize you must open your mind to learning that occurred that you never taught - never saw coming in the weeks you stood amongst your students guiding their education.

Let me digress. I visited the Soviet Union (back when it was one nation) and dropped in on a classroom where students were inculcated with how things must be done. It was a polite, respectful, ordered experience, but without cerebral energy, replete of enthusiasm for the joy of learning, and lacking the wow factor of students independently figuring out how to do something. Seeing the end of that powerful nation, I arrived at different conclusions than the politicians and the economists. I saw a nation starved to death for creativity. Without that ethereal trait, learning didn't transfer. Without transfer, life required increasingly more scaffolding and prompting until it collapsed in on itself like a hollowed out orange.

So how do you create the inquiry-based classroom? Here's advice from a few of my efriend teachers:

  1. Ask open-ended questions and be open-minded about conclusions

  2. Provide hands-on experiences

  3. Use groups to foster learning

  4. Encourage self-paced learning. Be open to the student who learns less but deeper as much as the student who learns a wider breadth

  5. Differentiate instruction. Everyone learns in their own way

  6. Look for evidence of learning in unusual places. It may be from the child with his/her hand up, but it may also be from the learner who teaches mum how to use email

  7. Understand 'assessment' comes in many shapes. It may be a summative quiz, a formative simulation, a rubric, or a game that requires knowledge to succeed. It may be anecdotal or peer-to-peer. Whatever approach shows students are transferring knowledge from your classroom to life is a legitimate assessment

  8. Be flexible. Class won't always (probably never) go as your mind's eye saw it. That's okay. Learn with students. Observe their progress and adapt to their path

  9. Give up the idea that teaching requires control. Refer to #8: 'Be flexible'

  10. Facilitate student learning in a way that works for them. Trust that they will come up with the questions required to reach the big ideas

In the end, know that inquiry-based teaching is not about learning for the moment. You're creating life-long learners, the individuals who will solve the world's problems in ten years.

How do you ensure they are ready?

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